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Vital Signs: Before holidays, assess and address your stress level

Vital Signs: Before holidays, assess and address your stress level

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As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, our bodies adapt naturally to the limited daylight. Our brains produce more melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep, and less of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin. As a result, many people feel less than motivated in general this time of year.

When you add in the stress of the holidays, political tensions and, of course, the fear of a looming pandemic, it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety are on the rise.

Mental health checkIt’s important for us all to hit the pause button and do a mental health check. Put away the to-do lists and distractions and take a hard look at how you’re feeling right now.

What is your stress level? What is the stress level of those around you? A handy tool you can use is a color-coded guide called the “stress continuum,” which helps you pinpoint your stress level. The breakdown is as follows:

Green: high-functioning, and minimal stress

Yellow: normal stress level, and coping effectively

Orange: actively stressed, with some impact on mental and physical wellness

Red: stress at an overwhelming level, with increasing negative behaviors and reactions

Everyone experiences stress differently, so cues that you’re in the “red zone” can vary. You may respond behaviorally, interpersonally, emotionally, physically — or all of the above. Examples of the types of responses include:

Behavioral: pacing, nail biting, increase in substance use, overeating

Emotional: worry, sadness, anxiety, anger

Interpersonal: withdrawal from others, lashing out verbally

Physical: rapid heart rate, sweating, nausea, headache, jaw or shoulder pain

The goal is to recognize your individual response to stress overload and find ways to actively reduce your stress level before you reach that “red” zone.

How to reduce stressUnfortunately, some of the coping mechanisms we rely on to relieve stress — particularly social interactions — aren’t readily accessible or advisable right now, due to coronavirus restrictions. Most of us need that personal interaction with family and friends to feel supported and cared for. You may have to be creative, but it’s important to make an effort to stay connected.

Take advantage of technology. Use Zoom or Facetime to reach out to loved ones. Pick up the phone and talk — don’t text — with friends. If you have elderly family members or those who aren’t tech-savvy, write them a letter.

Other things you might try to lift your spirits:

Head outside. Getting outdoors during the cold winter months isn’t always easy, but it is the most effective way to get your body the light exposure it needs to decrease melatonin levels.

Mind your body. Avoid the temptation to hibernate and sleep in, which can get your body off track. And keep up your exercise routine; physical activity boosts those feel-good endorphins.

Be kind. These are unique times, so cut yourself — and others — some slack. A little patience and understanding can go a long way in keeping tension low and your mood in check.

Talk to your doctor. If you experience more extreme symptoms that keep you from your everyday routines — hopelessness, suicidal thoughts — or if you just can’t seem to shake the blues despite trying the methods above, talk to your doctor about the options available to you. He or she may prescribe an antidepressant medication or psychotherapy to relieve your symptoms.

To learn more about mental health resources available at UVa Health, go to

UVa Health clinical psychologist J. Kim Penberthy is the Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences and co-founder of the UVa Contemplative Sciences Center.

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